m_topn picture
Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

Go to this issue's Table of Contents.

M A Y  2 0 0 0 

(The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part one or part three.)

Given the time and place of Lincoln's young manhood, this all seems rather predictable, and may tell us little beyond the fact that the young Lincoln was regarded as having, and no doubt did have, sexual appetites. Herndon made a point of telling Jesse Weik that Lincoln had "strong passions" for women -- a judgment confirmed by Judge David Davis, who rode the circuit with Lincoln for more than ten years. But both Herndon and Davis testified that Lincoln had scruples about seduction, and that his conscience "saved" many a woman. Though he believed, with good reason, that Lincoln visited prostitutes as a bachelor, Herndon seems firm in his contention that he avoided illicit sexual contact after marriage. All these things appear in Herndon's own correspondence and in the archive of letters and interviews he called his "Lincoln Record." But except for the stories about Lincoln's doubtful paternity, the record contains little evidence of really sensational gossip or serious speculation that needed sorting out. Where, if not in his collection of letters and interviews, were these "floating rumors" that Herndon was so concerned about?

It has long been known that Herndon did not put everything he was told into his Lincoln Record, whose contents he had duplicated by a copyist in 1866 and stored in a bank vault for safekeeping. Some things Herndon recorded in two little memorandum books. The first mention we have of them is from late 1869, in Herndon's letters to Ward Hill Lamon, a close associate of Lincoln's, to whom he had just sold the copy he had made of his Lincoln Record. Lamon was planning to use Herndon's material in a biography of Lincoln, but after he had a chance to look at the copy, he wrote to Herndon and complained bitterly that he couldn't be sure it was accurate without comparing it with the original. In spite of Herndon's earnest assurances that the copy was strictly accurate, Lamon harshly accused Herndon of bad faith. Herndon was in desperate financial straits and could not afford to have this lucrative transaction fall through. To placate Lamon, Herndon sent him a number of additional documents, including some in Lincoln's own hand, and he sweetened the deal by including something special: "I likewise send you two note books Containing some secreat and private things which I would let no other man have Even a sight at. These are not copied in your Record. Nor any part of them. Look over them and use what you wish.'' Perhaps having second thoughts about his suggestion that Lamon actually use these sensitive materials, he wrote another letter two days later, referring to the "2 little memorandum books" and saying that they were to be held "secret & sacredly private."

What was in the little books? Certainly they must have contained information that Herndon considered highly confidential, though sending the notebooks to Lamon scarcely seems consistent with his concern. Herndon eventually told Weik something about the books, and referred to them in a letter many years later: "The little book of which you speak is now in Lamon's hands: he will not give it back to me: it was only loaned to him. I'll tell you all about it when I see you -- can't risk the substance in a letter -- too long and too much of it." Here it is clear that the material in the book or books was too sensitive or sensational to write about in a letter.

As far as I have been able to discover, Herndon revealed only two items that were in the notebooks. The first reference is quite elliptical. In discussing testimony about Lincoln's so-called "crazy spell" at the time of his breakup with Mary Todd, nearly two years before their marriage, Herndon advised Lamon, "see Judge Logan's -- in a little book I last sent you." The other item we know more about, because Herndon described its substance to Weik in a letter shortly before his death.

When I was in Greencastle in '87 I said to you that Lincoln had, when a mere boy, the syphilis and now let me Explain the Matter in full which I have never done before. About the year 1835-6 Mr. Lincoln went to Beardstown and during a devilish passion had Connection with a girl and Caught the disease. Lincoln told me this and in a moment of folly, I made a note of it in my mind and afterwards I transferred it, as it were, to a little memorandum book which I loaned to Lamon, not, as I should have done, erasing that note.

Lamon, of course, had not put this episode into his biography, but Herndon went on to say that he was passing this information on to Weik because he was fearful that the memorandum book containing this note would turn up after his death and that the story would get out in a form suggesting that the incident had occurred after Lincoln's marriage. Herndon confessed to Weik, "The note spoken of in the memorandum book was a loose affair, and I never intended that the world should see or hear of it. I now wish and for years have wished that the note was blotted out or burned to ashes."

BUT Lamon, it turns out, was not Herndon's only worry. In the fall of 1866, just about the time he was preparing his famous lecture announcing Lincoln's love for Ann Rutledge, Herndon offered the hospitality of his home to Caroline Healey Dall, a traveling journalist and women's-rights crusader from Boston. Dall had corresponded with Herndon years earlier, and she claimed to have earned Lincoln's gratitude by supporting him in his bid for re-election in 1864, when he was being opposed by other women reformers. A strong-minded and forthright woman, Dall had a sharp tongue and a crisp prose style, and she earned her living by preaching, lecturing, and writing. She had come to Springfield to deliver a lecture on Lincoln, whom she idolized. Because of this, she evinced a great interest in the information about Lincoln that Herndon had collected. When Dall stayed in Herndon's home, he apparently allowed her to peruse his Lincoln Record. In the letter to Weik cited above he wrote, "Mrs. Dall did, I think, one day go to my private drawer and read part of the book, as I am informed." In fact, he admitted, "It is probable that I let her see the book.''

Caroline Dall regularly kept a journal, which is currently being edited by the literary scholar Helen R. Deese, but the portion of it relating to her trip to Springfield has long been missing. When she gave her papers to the Massachusetts Historical Society, she held back that portion, along with some letters about the Springfield episode that she had written to others and later retrieved. Deese has located the letters, and also some journal entries about the Springfield visit, in the Bryn Mawr College Library, where they were deposited a few years ago by Dall's descendants. She has determined that the journal entries are not contemporary but were reconstructed some thirty years later from journal notes made at the time, which are still missing. The reconstructed entry for Dall's first day in Springfield begins,

In the house with all the most precious relics of Abraham Lincoln. Just before breakfast Mr Herndon's son said to me, "I hear you are going to lecture on Abraham Lincoln. You wouldn't if you knew him as well as I do -- Good people didn't think much of him before he went to Washington." When Mr Herndon came down -- he showed me two bureaus -- one filled with political -- the other with private papers -- "You may read all you choose" he said as he went out -- I came here to read a lecture on Lincoln, invited or authorised by Governor Ogleby -- and it was to be given in the Legislative Hall.

When Mr Herndon came home to dinner -- I had read enough to know that I could not give my lecture. I was reading slowly through the private and personal papers, and until the morning of the thirty first of Oct. [that is, two days later] I continued to read, never stopping -- save for a little walk about town and my daily bath. Excitement forbade sleep.... When I told Mr Herndon -- that I had written to the Governor, that the posters must be taken down -- & the advertisements withdrawn -- he was startled. "I cannot stop you now" he said "but if I had known what would come of it, you should never have seen those papers."

Even though this has been reconstituted partly from memory, one can hardly doubt that Caroline Dall had seen things in Herndon's materials that greatly shocked her, and she went on to describe some of them from her notes.

Among the papers I examined ... are affidavits -- from prostitutes, prize fighters and the very lowest human beings of all sorts. Herndon's object in gathering these together -- has been to show Lincoln's essential integrity -- in every -- even the foulest circumstance of his life -- but Good Heavens -- rather than publish these, I would allow it to be doubted.

Those of Herndon's letters and interviews that are known to us contain no affidavits or testimony of any kind from prostitutes or prizefighters, and it is possible that these characterizations are simply a function of Dall's overheated imagination or faulty memory. There is no doubt that she got other things wrong. Some of her assertions are simply not credible on their face -- such as her claim to have read Lincoln's letters pleading for a release from his engagement to Mary Todd and Todd's letters of refusal. How Herndon could have obtained such letters and why such a communicative man would observe total silence about them are impossible to imagine. Dall also claimed to have read a letter from Mary Owens rejecting Lincoln's proposal of marriage -- a letter that Herndon could scarcely have acquired and certainly never claimed to have. In such cases it seems clear that Dall's notes and memory must have misled her.

One of the strongest impressions that Dall took away from Springfield was that she had seen papers indicating that Lincoln had retained lawyers in Virginia and Kentucky to find out who his father really was. She wrote in her journal,

When he was elected -- he was determined if possible not to enter the White House -- in the name of Lincoln -- and saw no legal obstacle to another, if he could establish his right to it. He wrote to lawyers in Kentucky and Western Virginia -- and told them what he wanted.... The legal investigation showed that Lincoln was probably the son of a more educated man named Bloomfield.

The notion that Lincoln wanted to change his name after he was elected is utterly bizarre, and the business of corresponding about his forebears is almost certainly a mishmash of what Dall read in the letters of Herndon's Kentucky informants and what Herndon told her about Lincoln's correspondence with a Kentucky historian, Samuel Haycraft. Several years later, in response to a letter from Dall, Herndon wrote,

You are a little Mistaken in what you say in reference to Mr L's writing to any one wishing to Know who his Father was. Mr Haycraft of Ky wrote to Mr L wanting to Know who his -- L's Mother was, suggesting that her name was So & So. Mr Lincoln wrote to Haycraft this -- "You are mistaken in My Mother" --

But Dall stubbornly refused to accept this. The following year, when she told Herndon that she was going to Virginia and Kentucky to investigate for herself, Herndon applauded her effort, saying, "I am in great hopes you will find much new, & startling information." But he warned,

You are mistaken -- friend -- about one thing, and it is this -- you seem to think that Mr Lincoln wrote to Haycraft for information about his birth -- relations &c &c. Haycraft wrote to Mr Lincoln. Lincoln replied, saying -- "You are mistaken in my mother." ... Lincoln Knew his parentage, birth-relations &c &c, and needed no information.

Dall's journal shows that she garbled or got wrong many other things, and this casts doubt over all her reports about Herndon's materials. It seems clear, however, from the tenor of her account, that what truly shocked Caroline Dall, and probably caused her to cancel her lecture, was reading what she took to be evidence that Lincoln had been, as she would have put it, unchaste before his marriage and unfaithful afterward. In a letter written to her confidant the Reverend James Freeman Clarke the day after she left Springfield, she said, "All the lawyers on circuit, and more dissolute women than I could count, know A. L's profligacy -- as regards women to be greater, than is common to married men, even here." She added, "I remember that when I read Aristophanes, I was thankful that there were vices for which the English language had no name. I had not been in Springfield then!"


(The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part one or part three.)

Douglas L. Wilson is a co-director of the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College, in Galesburg, Illinois, and the author of Honor's Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln (1998).

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; May 2000; Keeping Lincoln's Secrets - 00.05 (Part Two); Volume 285, No. 5; page 78-88.